Top Things to Do in San Diego for Cheap (or Free)

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Top Things to Do in San Diego for Cheap (or Free)

It’s easy to enjoy San Diego on a budget – in fact, it’s one of the best places in the United States for cheap, or free, entertainment! Much of the city’s appeal is based on its near-perfect year-round weather, so it makes sense that much of what you’ll do is outside. There are countless beaches and urban green spaces to explore – including some of the country’s most outstanding city park – seals to giggle at, trails to hike, historic districts to explore and more. Here are our favorite ideas for things to do in San Diego that are inexpensive (or free!).
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1. Spend a Day in Mission Bay Park
Play all day at this 4,200-plus-acre park with 27 miles of shoreline – 19 of those miles are covered by delightful sandy beach. Birdwatchers love the wildlife preserves within the park. Climb on play structures, go walking or rollerblading, fly a kite, play volleyball on the sand and more.
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2. Splash in the Ocean at La Jolla Shores Beach
Sunbathe, beachcomb and play in the waves at La Jolla Shores Beach, which is also the entrance to La Jolla’s Underwater Park. To see the leopard sharks, walk to the park’s access point on the south side of The Marine Room restaurant. You can also go snorkeling in Devil’s Slide. Don’t forget to snap a few family photos on picturesque Scripps Pier. Beyond La Jolla Shores, there are more than 30 beaches open to the public in San Diego – other favorites include Coronado Beach and Pacific Beach.
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3. Explore the Embarcadero
South of Lindbergh Field International Airport, you’ll find the Embarcadero (“landing place” in Spanish), where cruise ships dock and the USS Midway and other historic ships are berthed. Kids can cool off in the spray fountains at Waterfront Park. Wander a bit to the shopping and dining of Seaport Village or to Embarcadero Park South, where the San Diego Symphony performs in the summer.
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4. See Seals Up Close
It’s highly likely you’ll see several seals basking in the sun when you visit the Children’s Pool in La Jolla. A seawall was built in 1931 to protect the area, allowing kids to swim there, but over the years, the seals have made it their own.
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5. Learn Local Lore at Old Town San Diego State Historic Park
Bone up on local history at the spot where San Diego was born. You’ll see original adobe structures, including an old schoolhouse, blacksmith shop, carriage collection and artifact-filled museum (with free admission). On the weekend, there’s often live music in the park. Several Mexican restaurants and shops surround the area, so make an afternoon of it.
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6. Bop Over to Balboa Park
A San Diego must-see, Balboa Park is another budget-friendly outdoor wonderland in this sun-splashed city. Pick up a map at the visitors center to orient yourself, then set off to explore the gardens, the botanical building, the spectacular Spanish Colonial Revival architecture and more. There might be an outdoor organ concert at Spreckles Organ Pavilion, or a performance at one of the many theaters. It’s a vast park, so if you’re tired, hop on the free tram. Stargaze through giant telescopes for free on the first Wednesday of every month, set up outside the Fleet Science Center.
7. Take a Walk Through the Historic Gaslamp Quarter
While we can’t guarantee that you won’t open your wallet at one of the district’s many enticing boutiques, art galleries and restaurants, it’s free to stroll through the 16-block Gaslamp Quarter. Enjoy the Victorian architecture and the bustling promenade of this turn-of-the-century neighborhood, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
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8. Hit the Trails
Just 12 miles from downtown San Diego, Mission Trails Regional Park offers 5,800 acres of free outdoor adventure. Choose from walking and hiking, mountain biking, birdwatching and rock climbing, visiting two lakes and the scenic San Diego River, seeing the Old Mission Dam, climbing Cowles Mountain and so much more.
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9. Imagine Yourself an Elite Athlete
Are you an athletic type? Have a motivated athletic kid with you? Take a free tour of the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center (formerly the US Olympic Training Center). You’ll see the training fields and tracks, athlete dorms, the Otay Lake Reservoir and more during your self-guided tour.
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10. Take a Drive
This 59-mile scenic drive loop encompasses just about all of San Diego’s top neighborhoods and attractions. You’ll have vast views of the coastline, into Mexico and of the surrounding mountains. Highlights include Spanish Landing Park, Point Loma, the Cabrillo National Monument, Ocean Beach, Soledad Mountain, La Jolla Cove Park, Mission Beach, Old Town, Balboa Park and more.
11. Admire Alfresco Art
At Chicano Park, a National Landmark, you can see more than 80 murals as part of the largest collection of outdoor Chicano murals in the world. The park – seven acres of sculptures, gardens, picnic tables and playgrounds – is set in Barrio Logan, the city’s oldest Mexican-American neighborhood. If you’re fortunate, your visit will coincide with one of the park’s numerous festivals of music and Aztec dance.
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12. Discover the Desert
One of the largest state parks in the United States, at 600,000 acres, the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park offers insight into the natural beauty of the desertscape. Explore 500 miles of dirt roads, 12 wilderness areas and countless miles of hiking trails, marveling at wildflowers, cacti and a variety of wildlife, from roadrunners to iguanas.
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13. Take a Brewery Tour
San Diego is big into the craft beer scene, so learn all about it, including samples, on a brewery tour – or three. Check out the Green Flash Brewing Co., Karl Strauss Brewery, Stone Brewing Company and La Jolla Brewing Company.
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14. See Where It All Began
At Cabrillo National Monument on Point Loma, you can see the spot where Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo landed at San Diego Bay in 1542. There’s a historic lighthouse, a veterans memorial, tide pool – and views all the way into Mexico.
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15. Get Lost in the Trees
Hiking at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is a favorite San Diego pastime. There are sandy hillsides with views over the blue ocean, jagged sea cliffs and rare Torrey pine trees. You can even swim at the base of the iconic Torrey Pines cliffs.

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